domingo, maio 01, 2011

Harold Brodkey: "Ideals are for greeting cards"

Entrevista de James Linville à Paris Review

For the past thirty years Harold Brodkey has pursued a path unique in American letters. After publication of a volume of finely made short stories written in his twenties, First Love and Other Sorrows (1958), many of which first appeared in The New Yorker and were acknowledged to be of outstanding promise, Brodkey began composition of an extended prose work, portions of which have been published in magazines and journals, which has provoked a wide diversity of critical opinion—from Denis Donoghue’s claim in Vanity Fair that it is a “work of genius” to suggestions that it may be a bloated hoax. In the meantime, the work became something of an object of desire for editors; it was moved among publishing houses for what were rumored to be ever-increasing advances, advertised as a forthcoming title (Party of Animals) in book catalogs, expanded and ceaselessly revised, until its publication seemed an event longer awaited than anything without theological implications. In recent years, some critics, editors and publishing wags have begun to adopt, in relation to this native of the show-me state, what amounts to a somewhat peevish “put up or shut up” attitude, an opinion most explicitly advanced by Rhoda Koenig in New York magazine, who referring to Ernest Hemingway’s many posthumous publications bearing witness to that writer’s industry, quipped that Brodkey alive was less prolific than Hemingway dead.

Brodkey has, however, been publishing all along - some fifty pieces since the first collection. Yet he withheld publication of the manuscript in book form, and consequently was able to elude ultimate public judgment until November of 1991, when Farrar, Strauss and Giroux published The Runaway Soul. Still, Brodkey declines to say whether this is the first of a multivolume novel, or even that this is “The Book,” the novel that had been advertised as Party of Animals. Reviews and advance notices contained divergent opinions, and still the only consensus on Brodkey’s extended prose fiction remains that it is “long awaited.”

From his first published stories to the most recent, Brodkey has treated his childhood, boyhood, and youth as if they were a well to which he could constantly return as a source of narrative. He was born in 1930 in Staunton, Illinois, and soon afterwards put up for adoption, a dislocation that provoked a severe withdrawal from the world—as a two-year-old he stopped speaking for more than two years.

He entered Harvard at sixteen, studied literature, and was an editor on the college literary magazine. He interrupted his studies for a year spent traveling in Europe. He married Joanna Brown just after graduation and soon found himself a junior executive at the NBC television network, commuting on the Harlem-Hudson line from Westchester County, where he lived with his new family. It was on this train that he planned the first writing produced in his adult life: a story, “State of Grace,” edited and published by a fellow commuter whom he knew socially - William Maxwell of The New Yorker.

After publication of his first book of stories, he was awarded a residency fellowship in Rome by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The following years brought divorce, a brief involvement with the Group Theater, “legendary” sexual wandering, permanent residence on New York’s Upper West Side, occasional teaching positions, work as a staff writer at The New Yorker, the production of the stories “Innocence”—a touchstone, for want of a better word, of erotic literature—and “His Son, in His Arms, in Light, Aloft,” a masterpiece of reminiscence, and finally the development of his later idiosyncratic mode of narrative.

Brodkey married the novelist Ellen Schwamm in 1980, and published another collection, Stories in an Almost Classical Mode, in 1988. Brodkey and Schwamm divide their time between an apartment on upper Broadway—the view to the south somewhat occluded now by the “luxury” apartment buildings thrown up in the development boom of the last decade—and a wood-frame Victorian house in a summer community up the Hudson.

The meetings that formed this interview took place in the Manhattan apartment. At the outset Brodkey suggested the interview should be conducted without the aid of recording equipment and that the interviewer record his impressions of the meetings afterward, maintaining that this would be the best manner in which to capture the “truth” of the encounters. Indeed, when presented with the transcript of the proceedings of the first meeting that used equipment, he complained of its quality and asserted that it bore no relation to the discussion that had taken place. Brodkey continued to be an elusive though solicitous subject.

The text that follows is based on five meetings that took place over the past three years. Once the process began, Brodkey made a habit of pronouncing “for the record” (and often most epigrammatically) on the phone when no tape recorder was available, or in a restaurant, or even at a party where no pen was at hand. Some of this additional material has been added to the text. The whole, some three hundred and fifty pages, was edited, rearranged and revised by the interviewer, by Brodkey, by the editor of this magazine, and finally deemed by the subject to be “compromised” and “tainted,” but ultimately a text he would allow to be attributed to him.

Conversation with Brodkey - whether in person, or on one of the many long phone calls he makes daily to friends and publishing types to check on the progress of culture, as one might inquire about the weather before venturing outside - can be an adventure. By turns immensely charming and socially clumsy, offering observations of acute honesty with an air of Delphic significance, or an opinion with the genial guardedness of a con man. Brodkey is always intelligent and engaged - often with a declarative and emotional urgency reminiscent of an actor trained in the Method school. To a degree unusual in a man his age - and he is wont to remind one that he is sixty, “an old man,” in need of indulgence - he strikes one as remarkably unformed.

On entering the New York City apartment one is confronted with a legend—a wooden placard enjoining “Deeds not Words,” an artifact, like the rest of the furniture in the house, of early nineteenth-century vernacular design from the Era of Good Feeling. Hallways extend toward the kitchen and pantries in one direction and bedrooms and studies in the other.

Brodkey’s study is a large, white-walled made-over bedroom crowded with library tables, a drafting board, outlines and notes taped to the wall, and a collection of computer equipment worthy of a bond-trading room—computer systems of different makes, a monitor, another monitor of a vertical-rectangular shape that can show a single whole page of text, printers, and a scanner that Brodkey used to input the many pages of manuscript he wrote before he went “high tech.” A long wall is lined at shoulder height with cabinets that one is assured, ominously, are fireproof.

Harold Brodkey
Before we get started I just want to say one thing. When I was a kid I really did think that people would someday cheer for me, a kind of acknowledgment of what I would do as a writer. Then, when I was in my mid-thirties, I was running at the West Side Y in New York, on the track that goes around up above the basketball court, and as I ran, I watched the basketball game being played below. McBurney School was playing someone or other. They came from behind and the game went into overtime, and they won; there was this huge outburst of cheering, screaming, kicking, and stamping on the floor. People shouting. I think the track is twenty-four laps to a mile, unless that’s the swimming pool, and I was on about my twentieth lap, which is always rather an emotional time anyway, and I burst into tears, because I finally realized, you know, they’re never going to do that for a writer.

Not unless you climb into the ring, the sports arena.
Veronica Geng, who is very smart, and I were sitting around talking with George Trow and Ian Fraser. I don’t know who brought up baseball, but I said I was jealous of baseball players’ salaries; I said it bothered me that Dwight Gooden got so much more money a year for what he did than I got for what I did. So Veronica said, But Harold, Dwight Gooden goes out and delivers exaltation on a regular schedule to a great many people on a reliable basis.

Are you beginning to feel exposed?
All of a sudden, when Stories in an Almost Classical Mode came out, I moved from being a kind of amiably well-regarded nobody to being not exactly an often hated somebody, but close. But you’re not really somebody; you can’t go around assuming that an enormous number of people have read your stuff and liked it; you can’t be gracious, it isn’t like that.

It would be nice, though, if more people would give you that opportunity to be gracious.
Sure. Being an object of curiosity (and rivalry) is very peculiar when you’re no longer young. You really spend an awful lot of your time in New York just being confused about how to act. Someone like Elaine, who runs that restaurant, she helps because she places you in the hierarchy. She’ll try to tell you you’re a certain kind of person, and that’s a kind of an anchor. A lot of the time people insult you, tease you, insult your work, but sometimes it’s flirtation, or a job offer, the prelude to an alliance. When New York magazine came out with my picture on the cover a couple of years ago, I would be walking down the street and people would pass me, and then I would see the same people again, a minute later; they’d circled around to see the cover in life. And I would think, What do I do? Should I smile? Do I really like this? What’s the etiquette here? I think I did like it, but I’m not sure. It was bloody goddamn strange. On Broadway once I saw this guy about ten yards in front of me with a lively, educated, great face, smile at me. Then he began to applaud. Now, first of all, he was handsome and ironic, so I thought it was a joke. Or he was mad. But I thought, Hell, go ahead, believe it. He raised his hands and clapped them, and as we started to pass each other, he said, You’re the best. Keep it up. You too, I said stupidly. And I applauded him—I had no idea what I could do to thank him. Then there was this guy who followed me into Burger King, he asked for an autograph. He had about three coats wrapped around him, a homeless guy. I said my autograph wasn’t worth much, and I gave him a buck. He said, Sign it. The buck. I don’t know.

Has this business about fame been a longtime concern?
When I was a kid there was this show called “The Quiz Kids.” I auditioned for the producers; they asked questions, but I quit part way through. I stopped trying, because I got this sense, you see, that there was this trap, that you had to merchandise yourself, be cute on cue. And then you’d be stuck with producing that effect, that personality, all your life; you’d never escape. There was a clear association in my mind of stardom and self-destruction, so much so that when Larry Rivers said at Frank O’Hara’s funeral in the 1960s, “We all expected Frank to be the first of us to die,” that really glittered with truth. It was the same with James Dean when he got killed, and Marilyn Monroe. But I had this sense when I was a young man that you got famous and then, one way or another, you killed yourself. Or you retired—deadened, burned-out, cynical, sour. Death and fame.

You felt from the start this . . .
I’m pretty sure, looking back, that I was afraid of being mediocre, ultimately, in the light of literary history. And yet at the same time I was determined that no one was going to say I was a great writer and catch me that way. I was interested in escaping all that bullshit. It was necessary that everything I did be good of its kind but that it not present greatness as an issue. When that is attached to the aura of a writer, you get two writers, one the narrator and then another—an in-between persona, the rumored immortal running for office, the office of rumored immortality.There’s a Yiddish word, yenta, for the sort of person who nags you all the time. Frank O’Hara was a yenta. I wasn’t someone he publicized, but twice a year he would confront me and tell me that I was a great writer, a great artist, a great thinker, whatever, and that I was just hiding. And he would say that this was despicable. He would say that the work was fantastic, that it had influenced him, but unfortunately (he would say), I was a middle-class drag, not serious about becoming famous and influencing the world. William Maxwell said many of the same things to me. I practiced evasion until I was forty.

Evasion of what?
Of being an honest, wholehearted, fame-spurred writer. A sucker. A writer—and eaten up by it. Then, when I was forty, I gave up. I stopped being evasive. I clumsily wanted to be known. An eaten man. I think—and I have some evidence from when I was a teacher—that most people who try to write can succeed but don’t want to; I would argue that psychologically they would rather daydream about creating texts and being recognized while having real lives—they would rather do that than publish, I think.

How did it turn out, after the evasion stopped . . .
Well, a couple of reporters turned up and they asked me something like, Don’t you feel good that you took this risk and it came out all right, that you got what you wanted?

Your recognition factor shot way up?
Half-recognition. A neighbor called me to congratulate me on winning the Nobel Prize. I had to tell her no, that was Joseph Brodsky. I was Brodkey.

Recognition is bothersome.
Yes and no. But it’s a hook that tears at you. Years ago, Susan Sontag made up an aphorism in conversation, and it went like this: in this country once you’re famous, you’re famous until you die, but your status changes every day. This induces a kind of recognition-vertigo, a career-sickness, I think.

When did you first think about getting involved in all this?
The first time was when I was about eight or nine years old. It was a bad time for me. I was extremely unhappy. I was living with my adoptive parents, the Brodkeys. My father by adoption, Joe Brodkey, fell ill. We had no money anymore. I lost two friends, a guy who went to Hollywood and became a child actor, later a philosopher, and a girl I liked a lot who, though she was only eight, wanted to be a nun and who switched from private school to parochial school. I started feeling I wasn’t going to be able to make it through the next week, the next month, the next couple of years, or life. Then I got this idea of being a writer someday. Then life, despair, became things I could study, like arithmetic or geometry, or Time magazine. It wasn’t that everything was okay, but that they became handleable in a certain sense.

An impulse that gave you some sense of order to life?
To a reasonable extent. Do you remember being a child, and you leave the house, and you’re kind of mad at everything but not really, and you just start walking across this big, empty field or yard and you just can’t imagine how you’re going to go on? Because of the peculiar circumstances of my life I had to find a way to get along with my conscious mind, or I really couldn’t exist, and one way to do that was to start thinking about my life as a story, or something to be interpreted or examined. I didn’t think I was going to write about my childhood, but I thought I would write about something that would make things that were obscure to me clear . . . by setting up one of those tremendous structures of suspense in fiction. So just as you read on, you might live on, cross the road to get to the other side. You have some reason for going on, which was: if I don’t understand it now, I’ll understand it later, and if I don’t understand it later, I’ll understand part of it later, and I’ll go on for the sake of that.

So were you actually writing then?
No, or not often. I told stories to the other kids, but I didn’t write them down, or keep a journal. I wrote a poem when my father died, and later I wrote a choral poem for twenty voices and soloists. It was performed in the school auditorium.

What was it like?
I remember the opening lines: “I am an American, the son of the son of an immigrant . . .” The fact is that by birth I am the son of an immigrant, but by adoption the son of a son of an immigrant.

Did you want to be famous then?
Well, I certainly did think when I was a child that I would be famous someday. I thought I’d have a lot of money. I expected to write best-sellers and to be beloved and happy . . . I thought that’s what Sinclair Lewis was.

Most people who grew up with books in their house grew up with best-sellers but not with literature.
I knew that distinction; nearly everyone did when I was young. We had light opera and opera. But, by the time I was fourteen, I knew Jane Austen better than Margaret Mitchell. I remember getting into fights with teachers over literary craft, technical stuff—the structures and the seams, the variables of narrative, lowbrow, middlebrow, and highbrow stuff. The three books I read over and over, partly to see how they worked, but also because I liked them, were Gone with the Wind, The Three Musketeers, and Pride and Prejudice. I did read Emma and Persuasion and Thomas Mann and Steinbeck and Hemingway and Cervantes, but the three others are the ones I adopted as setting the basic levels of narrative—the chronicles of one person and an unsentimental view of women, the interplay of men, and betrothal stories.

You grew up in St. Louis, which has a reputation for spawning writers—Eliot, Inge, Williams, Burroughs . . .
People in St. Louis talked, oddly enough, like simpler Eliots, inhibited William Burroughses, and shy Tennessee Williamses. Williams and I had the same high school English teacher.

Did she say Williams was a pretty good student?
She said he was a horrible person. I found his name carved into the wooden desk where I sat. Tennessee Williams was the obverse of Eliot, and at the same time was like him. When I was at Harvard I’d get drunk and I’d recite Eliot and I’d sound like a character in Williams. I don’t think I honestly ever saw a Williams play, or reacted to one as a member of the audience because I identify so with the background out of which the work comes. All of the writers from St. Louis have a vaguely similar dependence on metaphor . . . Burroughs, Fred Seidel . . . I do think, seriously but without much study, that the influence of Eliot, and the influence of Eliot’s becoming famous, did affect people like Williams and William Inge. I knew Inge in New York at the Actors’ Studio. Tennessee Williams and I used to swim at the West Side Y together but we never spoke to each other.

Did you ever clap as he walked by, cheer for him?
No. At bottom there’s a dishonesty in artists.

How important is memory?
I use the past but not as memory so much as what I know. Often I make a conscious decision not to remember. Ordinary memory is dangerous to me. I had an operation when I was eight years old and I had a very bad reaction to the anaesthesia—I went into convulsions. They had to hold me down and pack me in ice. The anaesthesia gave memory free run, and that was unbearable. It was always clear to me where the dangerous things were in memory. I am always aware that I am not remembering. I have the sense that if I push too hard or too far into memory I’ll come apart—not only a loony-bin sort of thing, but a real shattering. Self-loss.

But you did begin to make use of memory to write.
I don’t use memory . . . I make constructions.

When did you start to write?
I started to write in college when I was sixteen; I began to take writing classes. But I had no interest in memory stories. I didn’t write any.

Did you like Harvard?
I was truly private, or anonymous, if you prefer. As a freshman at Harvard I felt young and dowdy and poor for the first time in my life—an outcast—and fatuous and stupid. I had real friends for a while, a kind of easy and untwisted interchange with people—that sort of thing. I was so happy I went a little crazy. In reality people like you and dislike you for your attributes, but that’s not the same as them handing you a manuscript of theirs after a kiss—girls or guys coming on to you because they want your life, they want to live your life, your professional life. A guy at Harvard named Amory, bright, talented, well-connected, told me I was lucky to be an outsider—pathetic, unfamilied, shabby, nonsectarian, unmonied. It was a reality, and it was a role too. This Amory guy told me I wasn’t weighted down. I could be talented, I could starve to death, I could sleep with whom I wanted—whereas he always had a number of other things to consider in those matters. He said I was lucky and I always ought to distrust the thing of being accepted. He felt superior but tragic—I think he was sincere. Harold Bloom tells me many of the same things still: there is great heroism and also obvious kinds of living death—the actual kind, both from internal sorrows and from external circumstances, all the forms of assassination once you publish and become known. It may be the realest and trickiest and most violent thing you can do—to be published. The “silly Charybdis”—a childhood joke—of the insoluble thing of the choice proposed: to live or to publish.

Were there any teachers at Harvard in particular you remember?
All of them. Mark Schorer. Theodore Morrison, who hadn’t read Faulkner or Hemingway but who was teaching writing. His favorite writer was A. B. Guthrie, who had recently written something called The Big Sky. A. J. Guerard Jr.—he played a kind of parlor game that got under my skin. You were supposed to come up with one word that expressed “the essence” of a writer. The word for Faulkner was outrage. The word for Stendhal was altitude. Archibald MacLeish. I was rude to MacLeish because he read Rilke in translation with an Irish accent. He was actually quite a good teacher, well informed. Rilke and Yeats weren’t widely admired in this country back then.

Were John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara your classmates?
No. They were ahead of me. They’d been in the service. They were already wicked and grown-up, and tremendously bright, of course. A cousin of mine at Harvard took me to meet Frank. Frank was at the piano playing something weird. I said, What is that? Frank said, It’s Scriabin. Do you know it? I said, No, but I can spell Scriabin. I couldn’t afford to buy records that year—I stole them. I stole “The Poem of Ecstasy.” There was a moment—literally a moment—when Ashbery and O’Hara decided that Eliot was out and Wallace Stevens was the only poet to be interested in. Even before Ashbery switched to Stevens there was in his writing this evasiveness, this sense that God was dead and meaning was impossible to come by; the same elegance that you find in him now. And there was Robert Bly, who was the Pegasus, the poetry editor, on the Advocate. But I was personally evasive and not close to any of them. At Harvard, then, everybody suffered. I refused at that time to undergo the kind of self-examination and despair and alienation that most people did then in college. I took a year off and went to Europe. I gained a little culture, was offered a couple of jobs. I wanted to have adventures. I wanted to drive across Africa in a Jeep. I wanted to go parachute jumping, though not enough to do it. I practically became a spy. At the same time I had this strong feeling for certain writers—Rimbaud, Fitzgerald. Characters who all wrote well young and who died young. I expected to die young. I’d expected to be neurotic and ill and helpless, and then it didn’t happen like that—I was robust, even rosy. I was strong physically. I thought about becoming an actor. I had a chance to start as a script boy in a company of actors that Olivier was starting up in London.

You were offered a job?
I had a screen test in Paris. It was clear that I hadn’t read Stanislavsky, that I hadn’t even heard about Stanislavsky. I was a very bad actor, but the face was usable; it was confident in some odd way, normal. I was naked-faced, even transparent, and obvious—it was sickening—but I looked American as hell. To whatever extent Europeans wanted to maintain any culture from the past, they were anti-American, but mostly they were drawn to American types. I looked like a drugged and melted Henry Fonda. I didn’t tell them I was a Jew. Anyway, they took me to be an American type—I didn’t really look the way I do now. And I was tall—they were interested in that. And the braininess showed. So I was a tall, semischolarly American type. Sort of noticeable, and undefended looking. Anyway, when I saw the rushes, the test, I started to throw up and run a fever. The reality of being that person, of having to learn to act, made me ill.

So you came back to Harvard and got married?
Yes. My first wife and I married the day before commencement, and we went out west. We wanted to get away from everybody. She had seen a copy of a magazine called Arizona Highways. I had asked her what she wanted to do, and she was surprised I was willing to do what she wanted and not drag her along with me where I wanted to go. I wanted to go in the Army. I wanted her to follow me around, take care of me, all that, but why not be nice? It sounds strange, I know, sort of dishonest, but I wanted, so far as I knew, her to be happy her way, not merely as a shadow. She wanted to write. She was also going to be an actress. All of those young things. I took her seriously. She wound up a vice president of Estée Lauder before she quit working. I went along with all this. We came back East and I worked at the National Broadcasting Company. I started there as a page. They wanted me to prove I wasn’t arrogant, which of course I was. But I “proved” I wasn’t because I was . . . you understand? I had a gray flannel suit and an attaché case. That was after I was promoted.

Did you have grand ideas about television? About being a part of it?
I didn’t have any money and I wanted to make some. Life in America is based on speculations of this kind: What are the good fields to go into? Where do you have a chance to become rich? The stock market? Oil? Metals? (It wasn’t time for plastics yet.) Morgan Guaranty or Morgan Stanley, whichever was the good one—there was a good Morgan you were supposed to try to get a job with. In college some of the impressive professors told me this was not a country where it was safe to be smart—they told me to stay at Harvard and try to be a scholar. If you left Harvard for the big world, you had to have a very cool facade. Television was new. I thought it had a future. It was already glamorous. It was sort of a frontier, and anyway I was unemployable in most fields of work. Unemployable in the nicest way.

What’s the story behind your first publication?
I came home one day and my wife was washing sheets in the bathtub. I had this “normal” thing about earning a living for my family—protecting them. If there was a danger I would stand in front of them and die for them, I thought. At the same time I had this sense of being out of step with society. By American standards I was on the overeducated side, and more than just a little bit too fancy. And not by birth. So I decided to write a story for money. I wanted to do a fancy Henry James sort of story about a wicked tutor and a dumb boy. It was going to be about making use and not making use of people. Do you know that thing about having a life that is a secret from your mother? But your father knows a little bit about it? But there’s part of it which is secret from him too? It was going to be about evil of that sort. I made a great many notes, but I never wrote the story until one day the story became clear to me. I had come home from work, and I asked my wife if dinner was ready. She said it would be ready in about five minutes. So I asked if she could delay it about forty-five minutes or so, and she said yes, and I wrote the story in the forty-five minutes. It was not the story I’d had in mind, but it was a kind of story that I’d had in mind for years. We knew William Maxwell. I gave the story to Maxwell on the train. He read it and telephoned me that day. He was crying. He said it was good, that he didn’t think The New Yorker would publish it though he’d see that someone else did.

He was an old friend?
A new friend of mine. An old friend of my wife’s. I never said to him that I wanted to be a writer, but he knew I did, and he got me to admit I did. I told him I’d already made up my mind that I wasn’t going to write in my twenties. If I started writing in my thirties, by then I would have had a life of some kind. But he lured and dared me to try. That is not to say the sheets in the bathtub were unimportant. But Maxwell as a literary tempter excited the field of response, the literary nerve. He talked me out of writing under a pseudonym. Anyway, The New Yorker bought the story. It was called “State of Grace.” The New Yorker was not really my taste. I probably preferred Partisan Review at the time, but The New Yorker was more American, it used better English; it certainly was more flexible politically. But it wasn’t the place I’d dreamed of to publish in. So it happened. And The New Yorker has been my home ever since. Life is very odd.

This was the first story in First Love and Other Sorrows?
It’s the one about the babysitter.

No evil in it.
No evil. No Henry James. I’d spent weeks preparing to do the story. I’d written dozens of paragraphs. Pieces of dialogue. But the actual writing took forty-five minutes, and the story became quite different. It wasn’t that the story changed conscious direction. It was that I told myself a lie about the story to get started and all the time it was about a related matter and not about itself—the self I was conscious of. Actually I was prepared for this to happen. As I was writing I kept saying to myself, This is wrong. This is really quite cheap. But I wanted to write it only in this form. I would have stopped writing it entirely but I did want to get my wife a washing machine.

It chose you, or did you choose it?
I can’t tell you. I prepare a story and then when I start to write something else emerges. It seems to be the way I work.

You talked before about wanting to escape becoming a public figure; how did the enormous reaction to your first story affect you?
I didn’t know how to act, what to do. George Plimpton said don’t think about it, and took me to a literary party down in the Village, stood by me and introduced me to people. At a certain point he said, “Now handle it.” There’s a certain sense in which becoming public kills the life you had before. I’ve been reading a book on the Jameses, and it’s quite clear that once Henry starts writing and publishing, while he still sees his sister and he writes to his brother, he’s separate from the family. It happens almost at once. At first one has two lives. One is the literary life in New York, The New Yorker, people who’ve read what you’ve written; and the other is the life you have with your old friends. In those days I was more athletic than I am now; I’d go and play tennis, or go canoeing with old friends . . . but after a while they don’t trust you. At the job I had, the people there didn’t trust me. They’d say, You’re going to write about it, you’re going to write about it. I’m not going to write about it—but no one believes you. Then they think, “Is he laughing at me?” And suddenly you’re more at home with strangers, with other writers, than with the people you’ve been at home with for years. There were maybe four or five years of the double life of being a writer and still being a person. Then by, say, 1957, before First Love came out, I was really fed up. Between the two I really thought I’d rather be a person than a writer. Starting in 1959 I began the slow retreat into reclusiveness. Except, remember, I was publishing all that time. I didn’t vanish—I was around . . . I made money ghostwriting. I played the stock market a little bit. No one pointed a finger at me and said, My God he’s a good writer. No one wrote pieces about me.

I’m still unclear why you were so reluctant to continue after your success.
It was something about being a young man and being part of the society of the time. I wasn’t prepared to assert myself as an independent voice arguing and howling. Here was a society with certain cultural preconceptions about time and cognition and about middle-class principles—and a secular lack of them—and fixed notions about how one hears speech and what the structure of a moment is—and all my ideas, all, were different from those. I didn’t want to be famous; I wanted to live. I didn’t want to be a moral barbarian either. If I’d been a more serious person, if the culture had been of a more serious order, I would have been, oh, more ambitious, barbarically or civilizedly. But I couldn’t hack it. I did have moments of seriousness. I did write a novel. It got turned into a short story. Well, it was a short novel. I suppose I should have fought harder. I might have spent more time being serious. As it was, I enjoyed my life until I was thirty or thirty-one. Then I went to work seriously and probably harder than I would have if I hadn’t been haunted by how I’d spent my twenties. I had no idea that it would take me so long to work out what I wanted to write. I really did think that two or three short, quick novels would set me free from the world of ideas I had, and then I would write other sorts of books.

Have you worked in other genres?
When I was thirty-four or thirty-five, I signed a contract with Rust Hills, who was at The Saturday Evening Post then, to write a murder mystery. It was based on a real situation. When Henry Ford got older he hired a gangster named Harry Bennett to handle the unions at the Ford Motor factory, and soon it became clear that Bennett was running the company, a major company—the only time that I know of a known gangster openly controlled a major company. I wanted to do a story about the family of the owner and the gangster; about the clash between the children of the owner and the gangster’s amoral and semilegendary brutality, the moral ruin and defeat of the kids . . . the painful anarchy of evil. I tried to create a cotton empire in Memphis with this guy running it and growing old and becoming distressed with his sons and turning to the gangster in all sorts of absolutist rages. I wanted him killed in a truly violent way that looked accidental. I had fifteen or twenty suspects—a chauffeur, a pilot, a valet, a wife, a mistress, in-laws, a lawyer, a lot of people. I planned the murder for about page sixty-five. I started to write. I had to set out the corporation. I tried to show how the owner was really drawn to his daughter-in-law who loathed him . . . How he couldn’t bear his son, who was, after all, a rich boy. I wasn’t writing very well; I struggled on and after ten months I got to page six hundred and nobody was dead yet. So I gave up.

Maybe you should have killed him on the first page and gone on from there.
Most mysteries begin with a whine about life being empty, the detective broke and waiting for something to happen. That’s what I should have done. Instead I did it my way, which didn’t work, and by the time it was apparent it didn’t work I was exhausted and frightened, seriously frightened by what I had found out about myself as a writer . . . the ways my writing will and won’t meet me halfway. The ways I have to behave or the writing will stay dead.

Well, what is your way? I wonder if there is some relation to Method acting?
It’s something like that. American method acting is a peculiar creation of Strasberg, Elia Kazan, and Arthur Penn—the underlying theory is very solid, about using yourself to create something. In my twenties before I did a final draft I would read Stanislavsky for the stuff about truth and the methods he indicates for substituting one kind of experience for another actual experience shaped into imaginary experience. The Actors’ Studio put certain ideas into circulation, created huge images . . . Brando for one. I thought Brando was fantastic, and I tried to imitate his honesty. After the first collection came out in 1958, I was involved with the Studio and I worked on a play for a year, but I abandoned it rather than start in on the rewrites the producer—Irene Selznick—wanted.

How do you go about actually writing?
There are about nine hundred million aphorisms about writing that are true, and one of them comes from Bill Maxwell—all short stories should be written in a sitting. As I understood it, that meant that you could spend weeks, months, years writing drafts, outlines, notes, sections, but sooner or later you ought to take all that and sit down and write a draft in a sitting, in a single flight—which might take days or weeks but without interruptions—so that the broad elements and the nuances cohere, certain echoes, certain resonances fit together, and there is real motion in the narrative—not a false motion linguistically grafted onto the story. Words have a strangely changeable, contingent kind of meaning, and as T. S. Eliot said in one of his famous essays, the music of language carries more of the realer meaning than the literal meaning of words does. A shift in the mind, in the mood, and you lose control of that music. Often, in a text you can see the fracture points where the music was lost and then regained or not. If not, the piece stays flat. A final draft has always been a little bit like a dramatic performance, but a performance that can sometimes last for several days with very little sleep; what sleep there is is troubled. The longest single sitting I can remember lasted for six days. I had to have Ellen stand by the desk from time to time I was so mixed up as to where I was, what was real. She would tell me what time of day it was; her voice was how I located myself. There’s the real time it takes to write a story. Then there’s the time the reader spends reading, which varies wildly. Then there’s the curious interplay of certain kinds of fictional time in the narrative structure. But whatever the time in the story is, you’re actually reading it in your own sense of time—your sense of your parents’ lives, or history, whatever—superimposed on the writer’s. And then there’s usually a subtextual time, set by the allusions and references—in Ulysses, for instance, the references to almost all of recorded history. At any rate, when you’re finishing something, every thought that is outside a certain range is an interruption—not enough of an interruption to change the other person you are who goes out and gets the mail, but enough to change the story.

All this in longhand?
At first, always. The first notes. Then I do a draft on a computer, which I correct in longhand. I enter the corrections on the computer. The typewriter was a terrible trial for me; it’s too goddamn linear. You can’t actually project a genuine thought on a typewriter, it’s so mechanical. And it’s rattling away while you’re watching and thinking and getting it down. You can only recite on a typewriter; it gets into the prose, into the sense of story, into the sense of character. You’re pounding away and so is the typewritten story. So for me it’s longhand plus my trusty Macintosh. You drag this thing up out of silence. And sometimes it’s good; but sometimes it’s just awful sludge smeared on the paper. But then something in you sometimes knows you can do something with it, or the something in you that says that you can’t do something with it is lying; or maybe something in you says you can’t do anything with it and you really can’t and you throw it away, and you start over again. Sometimes all you need is one honest sentence that will be the key to correcting the mess, to getting one master draft at a sitting. To be honest to your work you may have to turn your back on money, or turn your back on certain aspects of yourself that you would have preferred to keep. In return for giving in to the work, you do get a kind of freshness in relation to the adventure on paper. And then there are these wonderful moments when you’re writing reasonably well and you like what you’ve written and you daydream that it’s the greatest thing ever written and it’s all hunky-dory. You’re pleased with your life until you read the text over and you see it’s got its problems. Or you find a sentence, and there’s something good in it, but it’s mostly a lie as it stands; if you’ve been really corrupted you go with the lie for the sake of the part that’s okay; but if you’re lucky and obstinate about protecting your virtue as a writer, then you can try to correct the sentence, refine it, rescue the truer part, replace the crap. But it’s very nervous work. Often writing is like a struggle to get back to a kind of belated, quite impure virginity where the issues are not entirely those of corruption and despair. Everything you know about language, writing, talking, holding an audience, everything you have theorized about what was wrong about the work of the generation before you and is wrong in your contemporaries’ work emerges in the performance stress of writing a final draft or the master draft in one sitting.

Why? Why one sitting?
For a good writer the issue is whether you can be alive in the moments of creation or whether you’re a nervous robot with a dead text.

The last draft is surely the most exacting.
The main draft is the hardest thing, the most exciting, the most demanding. But the cruelest to bear is the beginning, the confrontation with the blank sheet of paper, where you have the chance to get up and turn your back on being a writer. You think, “I’ll quit, I’ll live a real life as a citizen; I’ll belong to the PTA and love my children. And have a country house.” Actually, I recommend doing two drafts at a sitting—each at a separate sitting—one draft good enough to publish. But then I think you should start to play, to pummel it, not in terms of material or language necessarily, but starting all over again in terms of persona and direction. You write it in the freer spirit of already having a usable version. You’ve set a time limit for yourself. Sometimes the real final draft is a collation of three versions—the responsible version, the playful version, and the last version, which has to be checked against the first two to produce the true final version. At this stage the self that is the ringmaster splits off and guards the outside of the sentences.

What does that mean?
I think there’s an inside and an outside to a sentence, and to a sequence of sentences. The inside is what you think, what you think you’re saying; the outside is what somebody else thinks you’re saying, and about you saying it. Editors and critics always feel they possess the inside—I don’t know why. If you want to be a swindler, you’ll agree with them that they see the inside better than you do. If you don’t want to be a con man, and you want it to be good, and you don’t want an editor to fix it for you, then you wait a few weeks, you sulk, you get drunk or you smoke a couple of joints depending on what degree of derangement of the senses your theories of art require. You wander around and get in trouble until you experience amnesia; and then you go back to your pages as a reader, as an editor. The story has outgrown you. You have to work on it humbly. The guy that did the work on this part has died on you. Or changed so much you can use the term die. What happens to writers who are merely professional is that when the familiar figure of what they’ve been dies on them, they go haywire, and then they fake a resurrection. They don’t let it grow back on its own, from the interplay of factors out of which narrative arises. They force it. This shows in the prose.

Is one of the reasons it has taken you so long to publish this work that, like a kind of Diogenes, you had to find this perfectly honest sentence?
Why did it take me so long? The audience didn’t like what I did; it was very difficult to publish the way I wanted to publish. Nobody said I was untalented; they said, You have to do it this way. I may have just sulked. I have to put it in the conditional subjunctive . . . I may have. I often did try to publish bits of the novel, but people didn’t particularly like it. Let’s say I have a batting stance as odd as Stan Musial’s, and I’m not as good as Stan Musial. I clearly have a problem at the plate. And this coach says you have to straighten up your stance. But I know if I’m going to do anything it’s got to be in that stance. So I’ve got to find a coach who’s going to put up with the way I have learned.

Would you give this sort of advice to someone starting out?
Well, of course, it would be tailored to the individual. But I think it’s far better for a young writer starting out to work with a literary magazine or at someplace like The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books than to study with somebody. There is less risk of suicide or madness if you don’t attach yourself to a person who is directly overseeing the way you’re learning to write. Also, it’s better not to have a program when you’re starting out—it’s a very rare literary figure who has a sense of her or his own gift and a sense of an audience, of the language. Usually when you’re growing up, you’re given a maternal language, and then you’re forced into a family language—partly male and partly female—and then you have a school language in which there’s a lot of coercion. However you want to talk, you have to work your way towards it; the best way to do that is to attach yourself to some person or some institution connected to language you admire. It’s a little like learning to play tennis. With tennis, you bat a ball a lot, usually against the wall, before you’re allowed to play with a coach or a better player—you hit the ball often before you actually get down to the game. So you really should be prepared to write a great many sentences, a great many pages, writing letters to your friends, to yourself, writing stories and showing them to friends, before you make up your mind to begin even your first attempt. You should also read. You really can’t write unless you read. You have to know what the game is all about. As you begin to change, there’s a horrible transformation from being a person to being a writer. Roland Barthes said that he regretted being a writer because then he knew he would never speak the language of his contemporaries. There is a movement away from ordinary life, from statistically normal life, the kind of life that most people of your class lead, into this other specialization that is really only bearable at the beginning.

Do you like to have an editor commenting on your work as it’s being done?
I do think that whether you’re painting or writing or acting or sculpting or singing, that if you’re lucky—and this is what happened to me when I was young—you discover a sense that all arts are social in the way one looks at them, whether one buys them or not, and in the way they’re created. You need someone. Now that doesn’t mean that you’re not alone in the moment of creation, but there is no such thing as a private language that is truly comprehensible. To create a story you must have some sense of an audience. There is no such thing as a general audience. When I was teaching, I used to tell the students don’t just imagine a reader, or yourself as reader, try to use somebody specific. Almost any kind of editor is of some use. The wrong kind of editor, though he can do harm, is of use to some extent. You have to have somebody who keeps reminding you that what you know about language isn’t all there is to know, that there is an extraordinary complexity in getting across to somebody something you want to say to somebody else. What an editor represents is simply the outside world, not all of it, but that outside world that he or she represents, actually does represent, and usually knows that part of the world better than I do. That is, an editor is of greatest use to the extent that he or she controls access to a constituency. Sometimes an editor says, This character is vague—or whatever; that’s all very well, but to me what the editor is saying is, “This character will not be comprehended by the people who buy the books that I edit.” This has to be resisted because often there’s an unconscious desire on the part of everybody to write your manuscript or to put their imprint on it in a way that reflects their views and not your own.

“Make better.” Isn’t that the famous New Yorker phrase?
They never said that to me. I’ll give you an example of what Maxwell did. He would say of a certain sentence, This is not a true sentence. Now say it in such a way that it would be true. A little on the Wittgensteinian order of the “sayable sentence.” The editor can check things like coherence, and he can determine the level of discourse. I talk to you differently from the way I talk to my wife; and I write differently depending on my relationship to the editors I’m using at a given moment.

This gets back to your idea of the “outside” of a sentence. Is this what you address yourself to when you’re preparing to send your work into the public forum?
A kind of writing solely meant for a public forum is often less interesting than writing where the writer has invented the public space inside the text, in the tone of address, in the tone of the language—where the address is new and as if in private. Public language is never new. But in good writing there is something absolutely new in the tone. There’s a very complicated idea that lies behind the notion of the public space in which the narrator addresses the reader. It’s an idea that has to do with language being actual, being temporal and spatial, to be Kantian about it. In a piece of writing the language runs along on the page and in the mind of a reader; in that language is no actual physical space, but it should carry the implication of a physical-social location. If you’ve been to a large Edwardian house you may have seen a small room with a fireplace and a couch, and perhaps two chairs—not a formal, large room where you can carry on, but one where you can sit and talk. It’s where you gossip. Henry James has a tone of address as if he’s arrived at such a large house, not his own, and he is seated by the fire; an invisible interlocutor or audience listens closely. Walt Whitman speaks outdoors it seems to me. The space Whitman suggests is complex and American and I think beautiful and a completely new invention. One thing that is unique about it is that there’s no tinge of social class in it whatsoever. Jane Austen’s writing suggests a drawing room sort of space; Hemingway’s, on a bar stool or in a club car—it changes, he’s complicated. Emily Dickinson creates a marvelous public space, too, and one of the marvelous things about it is that it is so clearly an invention since it isn’t based on being public; it is without a sense of the public. D. H. Lawrence is an absolutely amazing writer, with a fantastic sense of the language, but his sense of public space wavers, and sometimes a whole book or long story of his will collapse when he shifts the public space thing too drastically and is churchly-fascistic, or starts yelling as if in a corral, then muttering in a hallway . . . No order in it at all.

Is this also a factor with writing, say, criticism?
One of the reasons critical writing is not often as interesting as fiction is that criticism is part of an ongoing dialogue; it should never be in a space that you’ve invented; the space for it was invented a long time ago. But in fiction you have this other thing—the variety of spaces in which the voice of the writer comes to you in the piece. I think this is a major part of what’s called “voice.” You imagine the space, and then create the voice to fill it. To write for publication, for a large public forum, might require a widely declamatory voice. Or a specially projected one. The public space I’ve used from the beginning is not that sort, but is a kind of space for talking to someone that I first imagined as a literary possibility when I was sixteen and went off to college—youth, a certain kind of American speech set in a social category that establishes the kind of speech . . . doubt and incipient American rebellion. This is projected in the narrator and hopes to find a sympathetic response in the reader. I try to imagine myself addressing such readers one at a time. Sometimes you get awfully lost trying to write, and then if you’re lucky you’ll see someone in some other field solving this problem. I remember seeing Willie Mays addressing the ball and then grinning shamedly as he rounded second base, aware and unaware of the audience—that gave me an idea I used in “Story in an Almost Classical Mode.” I remember seeing a Paul Taylor dance called “Sunset” and I was set up for weeks after that because it was so good and so useful—its notion of courtesy toward the dance and towards the audience. There are some writers for whom Picasso does this. For me, Matisse and some Italian painters. When I was in my twenties there was a Bronzino at the Frick, a portrait of a young man from here down to about here. That was what I was after in my first stories. That’s where I got the final idea for the public space in the first book of stories. Bronzino cut down the amount of space around the figure; you simply cannot escape the sense, no matter how mannered the presentation, that this guy actually existed. The psychological reality of the portrait is increased by the fact that the guy knows he’s on display, and he’s confronting that. It’s not like Frans Hals where somebody is sitting for a portrait. This is a young man showing off in a restricted space—pretty much what I had in mind to do. I took Frank O’Hara to see the Bronzino; he said he imitated Bronzino too. Then we went and looked at Rembrandt’s “Polish Rider,” which became a kind of dim presence in a lot of his poetry; a more complex and iridescent version of the same thing—and a far less passive representation.

Is there one person in mind when you sit down?
They tend to be specific people sitting across the desk from me while I write. I try never to use an imaginary reader. And I always try to play two readers against one another, actual people I know, and know in relation to literature. Once you get going, there is this necessity for grace and luck. You don’t really know that it is going to work. And so the person sitting across the desk you’re imagining is partly a muse.

Whom Norman Mailer refers to as a “bitch goddess?”
No, no. It can’t be a bitch. But there’s a cruelty there. If you fail, this figure won’t step across the desk and save you. But if you prepare, there is no possibility of that kind of failure unless you lose your nerve. Unless your mind is gone.

What does nerve mean?
It takes a certain amount of nerve just to be a writer. Nobody has the same attitude. Somebody once asked me what I would do if my two dead mothers walked into the room.

The usual question put to Brodkey?
The usual question . . . All I could think of was I would lose my nerve—do they know I’m a writer? Do I tell them I’m a doctor? Or a business man? Someone they could respect.

Is nerve involved in publication?
I don’t know that I can deal with publication. In this country, to be published, to become a figure—a Mailer, a Styron, a Roth—is really not worth it. They give far more than they get. I don’t know if they sit around drinking and saying that to each other, but that’s what I see. They exert their will to get to a certain position and then find that they’re stuck running almost a charitable trust for the rest of their lives. Roth has to go on playing Roth until he dies. Any time he just tries to be himself, he has to do so off stage, but it costs a fortune to find a little corner of the world that he can control.

Is there a great stack of manuscripts of the books somewhere?
If I die tomorrow and my literary executor starts wading through the paper, there are five or six books that can be put together, but the structure would be a little bit odd. There are about three books that I’ve more or less finished, and placed the manuscripts in a cupboard near the door so I can grab them in case of a fire on my way out.

What are the contents of the fireproof cabinets in your office?
I have only one fireproof cabinet in the office. It contains an early play, the kind of manuals that tell you how to work your stereo, old leases, some correspondence, maybe one letter from Frank O’Hara, a child’s book I wrote called Jeffey with Wings (actually I didn’t write it, I stole it from my daughter who told it to me) certain attempts to lay out material of the novel, a lot of failed journalism—a long piece I tried to write for The New York Times about the United States. I spent six months working on it and was told it was too intellectual; William Shawn of The New Yorker told me it was probably the worst piece of journalism he had ever read in his life.

Would you write if there were no audience?
Language doesn’t exist without an audience.

You obviously have such an enormous concern about becoming a public figure that I don’t understand why you go through the agonies of it. Wouldn’t you be perfectly satisfied not writing?
I’m satisfied not publishing. It takes a tremendous amount of nerve, of intelligence, as well as a certain neural setup to be a public figure.

You’re bad at it.
I’m bad at it, and that seems to attract interest. People seem to like to watch me falling on my face. I don’t know how to deal with it.

So how do you feel about the path you’ve chosen as a writer?
Oh, it was all a mistake but what the hell. And who cares? I worry still: Is what I do useful? Is it morally worthwhile? Is it of profit to the culture that I do it? And, selfishly, I wonder if this is the way I want to spent my life. Do I want to write the way I do? Yes and no. I’ve come to terms with it. I don’t ever remember a time when I couldn’t write fairly well. And in a certain kind of American Puritan or Jewish American Puritan way it seemed to me that because of circumstances I was given certain things; so I did feel obligated to make use of them, to do something with them, to make something public out of them. But survival indicated that you, too, ought to profit from this stuff, and that changed the terms. It was really quite clear that the only way you could have any kind of independence in this society was to keep publishing to the point where you became one of the authorities. Either that or go mad and die. But it’s kind of real either way, and not romantic, not a romance. If you try to write and are not one of a school there is a dichotomy between you and the American public that you have to deal with. You really are like a tramp, a hobo. It goes back to the familiarity thing in language and to the Freudian thing about the Other who is an enemy. Pynchon’s paranoia would not have such an enormous audience if it did not reflect a genuine and widespread feeling. People get together and they decide what’s acceptable, or what’s to be understood as acceptable; we do this in high school. We do it at family holidays. I’m not particularly acceptable to any group. A couple of years back I went to see Star Wars, and I didn’t understand a word of it. So I hung around in the lobby, and waited until a mother and her child—a really talkative mother and an inquisitive child—appeared and then I followed them in and sat behind them. The child asked questions—lots of them—and the mother explained and explained. After a while, I caught on to how the storytelling worked. But I’m a bit out of it, you know. I don’t know anybody else in my generation who’s been so constrained by considerations of getting published as I’ve been.

I’m sure everyone has had these difficulties.
Years ago, I worked out a theory; it’s feebleminded. It’s about writers with no money and writers with money of their own. There’s a very fancy list of unmonied writers—Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes, for starters. Then there are the writers like Tolstoy, Flaubert, Jane Austen and Henry James, who had money and went their own way. They published a lot, or a little. Often, they published their own things. Tolstoy did. Proust did. James didn’t, but Edith Wharton paid his publisher to publish him. So they’re examples of a whole nonpublic way of working . . .

But you are public. You’ve published books. Your work appears in magazines.
Yes. And I have no money. But I write like a writer with money. That writer’s not necessarily in charge of me when I’m not writing. A mysterious person sitting here giving this interview is actually in charge of that writer. That writing self, well, it is unusable in the world, though it’s probably who I mostly am now.

Many speculated your work would never be published in your lifetime.
Oh God. Publishing is a miserable procedure. Most of the reviewers are probably okay but a number of them aren’t okay. I mean they don’t write or think very well. And the politics, the politics of doing favors, and of being favored are hard to handle—not long ago I read an essay, I can’t remember who wrote it, blaming Walter Benjamin for not being more of a politician. But the thing is, the importance of someone like Benjamin is not in his literary career, it’s in his texts. It’s probably not so bad a thing to publish. But I don’t like it. Although maybe I’m beginning finally to like it.

Are you afraid of being reviewed?
I met Joyce Carol Oates at a book party. She said that she really envied me my silence, my not having been commented on as much as she had been. I mean, she brings out about two books a year, so she probably gets reviewed by, what, thirty-five, fifty, a hundred reviewers? Maybe she only glances at around three or four, but just seeing the headlines, just seeing all those voices, opinions. And then there are all those other opinions that do matter to her. She said she was jealous of my not having my head filled with others’ comments, voices, opinions.

What do you hold up as a literary ideal?
Ideals are for greeting cards. I am trying to change consciousness, change language in such a way that the modes of behavior I am opposed to become unpopular, absurd, unlikely. You try to work toward a culture that takes time and conscience seriously in a real way and not as part of a tidal flow of hype.

Is that really your belief?
Yes. Be patient with me. Most of the furniture in my house comes from a period in American history called The Era of Good Feeling. A time when differences between political parties died down and there was a brief general consensus. It was a time of a certain affluence; certain kinds of happiness seemed to have been common. When I was younger I suppose I dreamed about a Periclean age in my lifetime. I don’t do that anymore, but I do have the feeling that the world is in trouble and that one can do something. The something I tried to do may have been a mistake. On the other hand, I don’t yet feel it was mistaken. Or let’s say I hallucinate about social reality and think still that fiction affects it.

You’ve portrayed yourself as being quite alone as a writer. You really don’t feel a kinship with any group?
Maybe the young, but clearly I don’t understand the young either. I mean, I’m not young. So when it seems to me I understand the young, I’m probably lying to myself about it. But their sense of emergency about the world tends to match my own. Their desire for something good seems to match mine.

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